is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
There are times when I have felt overwhelmed, when life is too busy and chaotic, when I’ve got too many civic projects going on. During those times, I just kind of want to step off the grid, travel to the edge of the world and dive off, sail to a deserted island, or just find a way to be alone. Don’t we all at times want to shut out the world, turn off the answering machine, click off the cell phone, ignore the emails?
The truth is, though, we are meant to be in community. To be our brother’s keeper. To love one another. To have friends.
In some Bible studies in which I’m involved, we’ve been discussing the importance of community, of being a part of something—a church, a group, a support network. This makes me mull over the difference between people who have a wide variety of connections and those of us who have few.
My husband is one of those Six Degrees of Separation guys. You know the type—sort of related in some way to nearly every person on the planet. Except for Kevin Bacon. I think Bacon is actually the only person this man doesn’t know (although he probably knows someone who knows someone who knows Kevin).
It’s become an inside joke in my family that, no matter where he and I go, there will be someone there that he knows.
The other day we were in a Wal-Mart in a town 60 miles west of here. I’m printing out some photographs from my thumb drive, and I hear Six Degrees Guy behind me saying to some stranger, “You look like a guy who used to level houses.” I’m thinking to myself, Gee whiz, Hon, that’s not a very flattering thing to say to some stranger. Turns out, the guy was a guy who used to level houses. In fact, he helped to level ours a few years ago when Hurricane Whichever knocked it off it’s cinder-block perch.
Or there was the time when we went to the Book & Author Dinner with hundreds of attendees. I, who actually was an author, didn’t know a single soul there. But SDOS Guy? Oh yeah, he immediately latched on to someone he’d known back in the day.
We were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest one summer, and he runs into a guy he once worked with over in Saudi Arabia.
Another time, we’re at a huge party where we knew only one other couple. But he says to one of the partygoers, “You look like a guy who used to be married to So-and-So who I went to school with.” Turns out, he was correct again, although Present Wife hanging on the man’s arm didn’t seem amused by the trip down memory lane.
Of course, he comes by this never-met-a-stranger attribute heriditarily. His own father, on visiting new houses, would open his hosts’ refrigerators and peruse the contents. Just to have a look into their world.
Just yesterday at a party we attended, my SDOS Guy singled out an older gentleman with his arm in a blue sling. Walking over to said gentleman, he asked him if he’d had rotator cuff surgery on his shoulder. Indeed, the man had, just as my husband will have on Wednesday this week. After a lengthy and detailed conversation about incisions, physical therapy, and pain meds, the “man in the sling” promised to call to check on his progress. New friend. Just like that.
In fact, the couple who hosted the party, seem to be one those well-connected types. And I don’t mean well-heeled, prosperous, or famous. They are simply people who genuinely like everybody they meet. Retired from the military, they’ve lived in many different places here and abroad. They have cultivated a huge network of friends and acquaintances. After moving to a small rural community in Texas, they made a point to join civic organizations and to acquaint themselves with every social, political, and cultural aspect of their new town.
Why is it that some people just seem more connected to the world than other people? And why is it that, despite this annoying habit of him knowing absolutely everybody, everywhere, my Six Degrees of Separation Guy can still pull off that whole major introvert character trait thing and run off to hibernate in his cave whenever he feels the need. Totally unfair!
The truth is, whether you want to admit it or not, we are all connected. If you drive out of your driveway, your driveway via the street is connected to every other driveway on the block. In fact, it’s connected to every other driveway in the town, city, state, country you live in. There are some driveways that I’d just as soon not be connected to, but that’s not really the point here.
The point is that we are, in fact, connected. But there are certain people out there who seem to link the rest of us people together.
I’ve read about the sociological experiment that gave us the concept of six degrees of separation, and it’s a fascinating read. To crunch the study down to manageable size, this Harvard social psychologist wanted to understand whether or not human beings from totally dissimilar backgrounds, locations, and occupations were connected. One hundred sixty people from Omaha, Nebraska were chosen at random to receive a packet with the name and address of a stockbroker that none of them knew in Massachusetts. Each person was to write his name on a roster in this packet and then send it on to a friend or acquaintance or to someone whom he thought might be able to get it eventually to this stockbroker. While it was assumed that there would be hundreds of links in this chain, the results showed something quite different.
Turns out that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in five or six steps. And even more interesting, many of the packets reached the stockbroker through the same person—a clothing merchant. Many other packets reached the broker at his office in Boston by way of only two other men. Half of the packets that were sent out independently by random people reached the stockbroker through only three men.
Malcolm Gladwell, columnist and book author, explains this whole six degrees thing like this: “It doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.”
So, I’m mulling over the difference between people who have a wide variety of connections and those of us who have few. Whereas I have belonged primarily to the world of Soccer Moms, PTA, Church, and a few national writers’ groups and forums, SDOS Guy belonged to a much larger variety of worlds. At various times in his life, he has been a bartender, a police officer, a corporate headhunter, an ex-pat in the Arabian peninsula, a graduate student, a psychotherapist, a college counselor, and one of those voice-over people that you often hear but never see.
So, it seems to me that it’s diversity of your occupations and activities that expands your connectivity in the world.
One of the most successful trial lawyers in history lives in our city, and he finds delight every summer in receiving a large sack of our home-grown tomatoes. He delights in these tomatoes for no other reason than my husband once heard through another friend in the same law firm that Successful Trial Lawyer loved nothing more than the sweet taste of a home-grown tomato. There’s no fanfare in the delivery of said tomatoes. They’re just dropped off at the receptionist’s desk. But we never fail to get a phone call of thanks.
And yes, as I said before, this Six-Degree guy is an introvert. But, through that introversion, he is observant. I think it is important that we become genuinely interested in other people’s stories. We need to find more topics to captivate us, more types of people to fascinate us, more relationships to cultivate. I think our links in the world depend on the variety of our experiences.
I know the church secretary and the president of the knitting club.
SDOS Guy’s friends run the gamut from police officers to astronauts, from psychologists to politicians, from engineers to tree trimmers, from bookies to priests. He never forgets a face and in what past situation that face belonged. He has a lot of friends.
I, on the other hand, have trouble remembering the face of my best friend, what’s her name.
The key, I think, is to not be afraid to approach people. He’s not. He’s not the least bit afraid to ask probing questions that most in polite society would consider a nosy intrusion. But another thing about this Six Degree Guy that’s sorely lacking in me?—He doesn’t leave old friends behind. If he sees an obituary for the mother of a some kid he knew back in ’52, he attends the funeral.
I don’t even keep up with my college roommate.
Jesus’ last commandment to his disciples was to go out into the world and connect. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” “Feed my sheep.” We are to join with the world around us. Love one another. Feed one another. And connect.
We are not meant to stay detached and to be alone.
And while the song It’s a Small World, Afterall is possibly the most annoying song on the planet, the words are, alas, so true.
We are not meant to be an island. We are meant to be involved in mankind.